Though the bounty of summer is great, by the time fall arrives I’m missing my cool-weather greens—whether it’s a fresh, crisp salad or a hearty sauté of kale, chard and collards. Greens are one of the most versatile, nutrient-rich and easy-to-grow crops our gardens produce. Their meal options are many. Regardless of whether you grow anything else in the fall garden, greens are a must.
Lettuce, spinach, kale, chard, mustard, collard and turnip greens are some of the most common and easiest-to-grow greens. Some lesser-known, albeit delicious, options include arugula, mizuna, bok choy and tatsoi. Though their culinary uses vary, they all share common elements when it comes to the garden.
Greens are mostly a cool-weather crop. With consistent moisture, they thrive during short, cool days and cold nights. When these conditions occur in your garden depends on your planting zone. (The USDA Plant Hardiness Zones will help you learn about how plants may react to conditions in your area. Learn more.) Though these cooler temperatures indicate greens-growing weather, the time to plant will depend on how you choose to get your seeds started and when you expect your first frost. The following list offers more information about when to plant various greens.
Though greens are easy to grow, they are susceptible to various pressures. Pests, weeds and insufficient water can halt or slow their growth. The most common pests to affect greens include cabbage worms and slugs. Pick them off by hand or use the organic insect repellent Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to keep them under control. Weeds are the plight of every gardener, but once greens are established they can often shade out pesky weeds. Applying a 6-inch layer of mulch will do wonders to keep weeds at bay. Finally, make sure to water well during the late summer days. That same thick layer of mulch will also go a long way toward maintaining the moisture content of your soil.
Read on for a few details on the most common and easiest-to-grow salad and cooking greens for your garden.
Kale, Collard Greens & Swiss Chard
Planting: Put seeds and transplants out at least six weeks before frost. In mild winter climates, transplants and seeds can go out eight to 10 weeks before the first frost. Space kale and collards 24 inches apart; chard 8 to 10 inches apart, either by seed or transplant.
Maintenance: Kale and collards are fairly pest-free, enjoy well-nourished soil and can withstand a frost. A heavy freeze will kill kale and chard, but in mild winter climates they will keep on producing through winter. Collards are the hardiest of the greens and will continue to grow beyond the frost, through winter and on into springtime. Mulch plants well for best overwintering results.
Harvesting: Harvest larger outer leaves for cooking and young, tender leaves for salads.
Eating: Remove the ribs of all three plants for more even cooking. A quick sauté of kale with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper is a lovely complement to any meal or a fantastic addition to eggs, quinoa and veggie burgers. Collards need a little more time under the fire before they soften to their ideal form. Some prefer them long-simmered in broth (often with a ham hock thrown in) and topped with pepper vinegar. For a twist, try them sautéed like kale with olive oil, salt, pepper, dried chipotle peppers and a hearty dash of malt vinegar. Chard also appreciates a quick sauté with a citrus and oil preparation. Kale and chard ribs can be removed and cooked along with the greens, but start the ribs first and add the greens once the ribs start to soften. Sautéed chard is an amazing complement to goat cheese crostini. Try it. Swoon-worthy!
Turnip & Mustard Greens
Planting: The seeds of turnip greens (the leafy part of a turnip plant) and mustard greens can be broadcast into a prepared bed and lightly raked in about two months before the first frost. Water well to ensure good germination and continue to water as plants emerge. They make a great winter cover crop. (Read about cover cropping in All About Cover Crops.)
Harvesting: Harvest mustard greens by the single leaf. Turnips can be grown for both their greens and their roots. Many people harvest the greens while they wait for the roots to develop. To protect the health of the root, don’t harvest all the leaves at once. Instead, harvest single leaves or snip high enough above the soil to leave tiny new leaves intact.
Eating: Mix both greens together and cook them down to soft sweetness in a rich vegetable or meat broth. Top with hot pepper vinegar. Sop up juice with cornbread.
Lettuce & Spinach
Planting: Lettuce and spinach can be sown by seed directly into the garden or transplanted. Both plants have shallow root systems and need consistent moisture. Seeds sown directly into the soil bed should be thinned to 4 to 6 inches apart after their first true leaves come in. True leaves have the shape of the mature plant’s leaves and come in after the first set of rabbit ear-shaped leaves. To grow a full lettuce head, plants should be 12 inches apart.
Maintenance: Both plants are easy to care for and require only light weeding. Pests may be a problem; consider light row covers to keep animals away. Spinach is cold-hardier than most lettuces and can survive chilly weather, especially with help from row covers.
Harvesting: Harvest (and plant) salad greens depending on your desired end product. Plants can be harvested by the outermost leaf. This reduces their likelihood of bolting and encourages them to put more energy into new growth. Leaves can be harvested in aggregate, taking all the leaves on the plant at once but leaving the stem and root intact (this will result in the plant growing another flush of leaves). Alternatively, let lettuce develop until it forms a full head, then harvest it in one piece using a sharp knife to cut below the lowest leaves, or pull the plant out by the roots.
Eating: Wash, wash again, dry and enjoy raw. A drizzle of olive oil and lemon and a handful of seeds or nuts make nice accompaniments.
Seeds or Seedlings?
The choice to grow from seed or transplant mostly depends on your desired end product: If you’re looking for small, delicate greens perfect for a salad mix, then sow seeds in rows about 8 inches apart or simply broadcast them in a prepared soil patch. Harvesting is as simple as running a knife or a pair of scissors through the patch of greens an inch or two above the soil.
If you want more fully grown leaves harvestable in single-leaf form, better-suited for the sauté pan or soup pot, grow fall greens from transplants. Plant them 12 to 24 inches apart to give them room. Harvest by removing outer leaves as needed. Young, tender leaves found in the center can also be harvested for salads. If you live where summers are particularly hot, you might want to consider using transplants. Warm temperatures make it harder to keep seeds moist enough to germinate. Transplants will help combat this frustration.